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LAFC 2019 Player Postmortem: Lee Nguyen

Starter-caliber midfielder provided important depth.

LAFC v Philadelphia Union : MLS Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Lee Nguyen entered the 2019 season with Los Angeles Football Club seeming like the likely player to take Benny Feilhaber’s mantle as the experienced midfielder for the club in their second season.

Like Feilhaber, Nguyen was an attack-first midfielder who had honed his two-way game in part due to Bob Bradley’s influence. Whereas Feilhaber was well familiar with the defensive responsibilities of his position after several years playing for Peter Vermes at Sporting Kansas City, Nguyen was something of a “luxury player” in MLS terms during his stint at the New England Revolution, known for his attacking skills and essential lack of defensive chops.

But he showed a willingness to learn under Bradley and rounded into a surprisingly adept veteran midfielder by the end of 2018 with LAFC. With Feilhaber leaving in the offseason, Nguyen looked like the anchor of the midfield with young talent around him.

But it didn’t quite pan out like that. An early-season muscle injury sidelined Nguyen for six games, and perhaps the biggest non-Carlos Vela development of LAFC’s season took place in his absence, as both Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye took big leaps in their respective games this season, and revelation of the season Latif Blessing moved to the midfield and never relinquished his position.

Make no mistake, if Nguyen hadn’t gotten hurt, Blessing would not have been an emergency option in midfield, and history might have unfolded very differently. It was an unfortunate development for Nguyen, the Wally Pipp to Blessing’s Lou Gehrig, but sometimes the starter doesn’t automatically get his spot back, and this was one of those situations.

Here are Nguyen’s stats for 2019:

Lee Nguyen 2019 LAFC statistics

2019 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
2019 Games Played Games Started Minutes Goals Assists Shots SOG Yellow Cards Red Cards
MLS Regular Season 23 11 1,170 0 4 18 7 3 0
U.S. Open Cup 2 2 172 1 1 2 1 0 0
MLS Playoffs 2 2 150 0 3 0 0 0 0
Total 27 15 1,492 1 8 20 8 3 0

Nguyen still played quite a bit even if he lost his starting spot, and really seemed to be a good sport about it. His production on the scoresheet wasn’t stellar, but racking up eight assists across all competitions is still quite good, and don’t forget, he wasn’t asked to be a major contributor in terms of attacking production anyway. His lone goal came in the U.S. Open Cup, but his most eye-popping night came in the playoff win over the LA Galaxy, when he pitched in with three assists in the historic 5-3 win.

LAFC got a bonus of sorts in 2019, with four bonafide starting midfielders for three spots, and Nguyen, a 33-year-old veteran used to having a team built around him, had to fight for scraps. It paid off in one big respect, as he played a role in helping LAFC win the Supporters’ Shield, something that will help cement his legacy with the club.

Unfortunately, his tenure with the black-and-gold appears to be over, after he was selected in the Expansion Draft by Inter Miami. That fans have been mourning his departure says a lot about what he brought to LAFC – able to fit into the roles asked of him, next to Vela probably LAFC’s most skillful player, and MLS’s biggest Asian American star playing in an international city like Los Angeles.

Looking at it from an X’s and O’s perspective, I think LAFC knew there was a decent chance they would lose Nguyen in the Expansion Draft and made plans to account for that possibility, said to be looking for a new midfielder or two now. He was good but he’s in his 30s and LAFC have three players ahead of him at this point on the depth chart. And leaving for Miami means he might get more of a chance to start, so it may be something he won’t hate, either.

But Nguyen’s status as a fan favorite on a team full of faves means it still stings to lose him. His game doesn’t have a lot of analogues on an MLS level, and having a talented playmaker able to come off the bench in the second half is just not a common tool for most coaches in the league. We’ll always have the soccer ball through the giant donut, and the memories. Thanks, Lee.

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